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Friday, September 24, 2021

Forget To-Do Lists. You Really Need a ‘Got Done’ List

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Technology has produced a variety of productivity tools, from task boards to to-do lists, from relational databases to outlines. Yet, rather than give users a sense of accomplishment, they can often instill a sense of being overwhelmed, reminding us what we have left to do. They all seem to be missing a key feature that would help us feel gratified and motivated to do even more: the “got-done” list.

Even before the pandemic, as both a work-family researcher and life coach, I witnessed how talented professionals can feel that they are falling behind despite working hard. In the beginning, I thought they needed to set better priorities. It soon became clear that they experienced numerous interferences both at the office and at home. In fact, the more reliable and caring they were, the more they were asked to help someone out, especially in “emergencies.” These urgent disruptions wreaked havoc on my clients’ own plans, leaving them to declare “I’ve got nothing done!” and feel depleted.

I knew they were not alone. My research colleagues at the Families and Work Institute, Ellen Galinsky and Ipshita Pal, and I analyzed data from the Society of Human Resource Management’s 2016 National Study of the Changing Workforce. This representative study of all US employees indicated that 57 percent report being interrupted often or very often during a typical week, making it very difficult to get their work done.

It was also unsurprising that the digital tools they relied on were far from cheering them up. Their to-do lists remained unchanged, serving as reminders of what they didn’t do. Many of their apps archived completed tasks or made them disappear—hiding their achievements. Most importantly, the online calendars, lists, and boards never documented the unscheduled fires they extinguished, like making last-minute corrections for a client presentation or taking the car to the mechanic. Their heroics were never acknowledged.

Learning from their experiences, I developed a simple technique to supplement the digital tools that failed to serve them. The “got-done list” is a running log of accomplishments. Kept alongside a traditional “to-do list,” I asked my clients to record the additional things they did, big or small. This alone isn’t a new idea—people have written about “done” lists for years—but for my clients it yielded great results.

Why the ‘Got-Done List’ Can Help

Even a small disruption has the potential to impact one’s mood. In his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, Ethan Kross, professor and director of the Emotion and Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan, wrote “Your mood is defined not by what you did but by what you thought about.”

In a recent phone conversation, he elaborated: “Zooming in on what you didn’t get to do can cause chatter,” or an escalation of negative thoughts and emotions. In contrast, a got-done list can help you with “perspective broadening.”

“If you can step back to see what you got done, it stands to reason that you wouldn’t get stuck focusing on the bad feelings of not having accomplished what you set out to do. It makes sense that you would feel better,” he said.

Moreover, the got-done list continued to help my clients and me during the Covid-19 pandemic because it provided us with “compensatory control.” Kross explained: “Creating a list can help restore a sense of control in a situation that lacks order, as a way of organizing and giving you a sense this is something you can manage.”

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